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Afghans hope — and worry — that Trump will shake things up

By PAMELA CONSTABLE AND SAYED SALAHUDDIN | The Washington Post | Published: January 24, 2017

KABUL — Over the past eight years, Afghans have become increasingly disillusioned with the American role in their country. Many blamed President Barack Obama's policies for being a source of Afghan corruption, for air attacks that killed civilians, and for an alien troop presence that failed to stop Taliban insurgents and was pulled out too quickly.

So it is not surprising that, like American voters who supported Donald Trump out of a longing for change, many Afghans are looking to his presidency as a chance for a fresh start. Most know little about Trump except that he may do something bold and unexpected. For now, that sounds appealing.

"Obama was too predictable. Sometimes a small dose of madness can be good," said Davood Moradian, director of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. He suggested that Trump's bluntness and "masculine" approach may be useful for deterring the insurgencies that are thwarting Afghanistan's path to stability and development.

"We need to work against both state-sponsored terror and violent attacks by nonstate actors," Moradian said. "He may put some discipline into them."

A variety of Afghans interviewed in the capital also expressed the hope that Trump would bring decisive action and sharp attention to the region's problems. Many singled out Pakistan as a neighbor that has meddled destructively in their country, especially by supporting the Taliban, while reaping the benefits of U.S. military aid as a partner in the war on terrorism.

"We ask Trump to put immense pressure on Pakistan to close the training centers for terrorists on its soil," said Taj Mohammad Ahmadzada, 53, deputy director of the Afghan journalists union. Afghans, he added, expect Trump to "interact honestly with Afghanistan" after years of "vague policies" that he said have fostered suspicions that Washington has had a self-interested "secret agenda" in the region.

Trump made little mention of Afghanistan in his campaign, and his few remarks have been contradictory. He has vowed to crack down on Islamist extremism and violence but has shown little appetite for nation-building. He has said he would reluctantly keep some U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but only because of potential threats from Pakistan's nuclear arsenal.

On Friday, Trump spoke by teleconference from Washington with U.S. troops at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan, while he was onstage at an inaugural ball. He told them, "I'm with you all the way," and added, "Keep fighting; we're gonna win," but he made no specific comments about the Afghan conflict or the U.S. military's role in it.

Despite their eagerness for change, Afghans are ambivalent about whether they want American troops to remain. They have been outraged by incidents of civilian casualties, such as a mistaken airstrike on a combat zone hospital that killed 42 people in 2015, and offended by allegations of American troops insulting Islam. The troop presence has been both a lightning rod for Taliban attacks and a deterrent.

"We do not trust the American government. It has used our soil and people for its own goals," said Sahar Gul, a taxi driver in his 30s. "I very much hope Mr. Trump pulls out all the troops from our country, because the invasion has brought us more misery, deaths, destruction and enriching of the warlords."

On the other hand, many Afghans see the U.S. military presence as necessary to ward off insurgent aggression that their own forces cannot handle alone. They complain that Obama withdrew most forces too soon, at the end of 2014, and they are relieved that he later allowed about 10,000 to remain and has sent a contingent of Marines to bolster the fight in besieged Helmand Province.

"The failure of Afghanistan is the failure of America, and it seems the war is heading for total failure," said Sayed Fatah, 25, a university student. "Trump needs to review Obama's policy and find out where the fault lies. We do not want troops withdrawn because of the situation we are in, but at the same time, we do not want the status quo to go on for an indefinite period."

Several analysts noted that for all their complaints, Afghans have long accepted the primacy of U.S. power and are far less trusting of other regional governments such as Russia's, with its history of military intervention here. Many never forgave the United States for abandoning Afghanistan after the Soviets withdrew in 1989, and they worry that it could happen again.

"The United States remains the indispensable actor in Afghanistan, and most Afghans want them to remain despite their grievances. No one else can fill that vacuum," Moradian said.

"The U.S. presence is the lesser evil," he added. "The greater evil is anarchy."

Several Afghan observers of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the region expressed alarm over Trump's tendency to react emotionally and his vow to take actions that contradict long-standing U.S. foreign policy stances, such as intervening in the dispute between India and Pakistan over Kashmir.

On the other hand, they expressed hope that if the new president is tempted to take precipitous steps that could risk destabilizing the region, such as canceling Obama's nuclear deal with Iran or cutting off aid to Pakistan, he will be reined in by more cautious experts and institutional wisdom.

"We have no idea what Mr. Trump will do because he has no experience with these issues," said Adbul Hakim Mujahid, a member of the government peace council. "But American democracy is more than one individual. It has stable institutions and a capable bureaucracy. We hope they will restrain his actions and not allow situations to deteriorate."
 

U.S. servicemembers set up a defensive perimeter in Wardak, Afghanistan, in July 2016. A variety of Afghans interviewed expressed the hope that President Donald Trump would bring decisive action and sharp attention to the country's problems.
CHRISTOPHER R. HANSON/U.S. ARMY

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